Why Churches Should Adopt Public Schools

By Jeremy Del Rio


Sometimes a good idea takes a while to generate traction.

But then a combination of timing, people, and Providence inspire enough hearts and minds to action that it transforms society, in what Malcolm Gladwell calls a “Tipping Point.”

Consider, for example, the idea that churches should love youth in their communities by adopting public schools. The Campus Alliance has been saying this for years, even creating a website to help promote the idea and track its progress (www.everyschool.com). While progress is being made, many schools still wait to be adopted.

In New York City we have made strides in the right direction.

It started in January of 2010 when 293 pastors and ministry leaders gathered at the 15th annual Concerts of Prayer Pastors Prayer Summit and prayed intentionally for the first time in memory – with one voice and for more than a few minutes – for the city’s millions of young people. Rather than generic, “Bless them, Lord” prayers, they focused instead on specific concerns:

  • At-risk youth within particular churches, including the incorrigible ones.
  • The nondescript youth who blend into the background, and the weak ones whom bullies target.
  • Personal and community struggles, such as sexuality, HIV/AIDS, family disintegration, and gangs.
  • Systemic injustices such as a public education system where 60% of elementary school students don’t read at grade level, yet spends $12 billion educating them,
  • Generational poverty that traps nearly 30% of NYC children below the poverty line, with 72% of Latino and 61% of African American children.
  • The commissioning of ministers, both church-based and marketplace workers such as teachers, paraprofessionals, business managers, health professionals, and students themselves, to love youth without judgment.

This intentionality extended into a break-out session where 75-100 leaders conducted an “intergenerational conversation” concerning how to engage the region’s youth and youth culture with the gospel more effectively.

Why the zealous response?

Consider that Jesus described children, who represent 25% of New York’s overall population, as the most-ripe for a spiritual “harvest.” Who’s more “like a child” – Christ’s prerequisite for entering the kingdom of heaven – than a child?

To make the conversation more manageable – engaging all of the city’s two million kids 18 and under (by themselves, they would be the fifth largest city in America) is a daunting proposition – the discussion focused on the 1.1 million students in New York’s public schools.

Why public schools?

To borrow another of Jesus’ metaphors, effective “fishing” requires going where fish gather, namely (cheesy pun alert) within schools. Factor into the mix the reality that public school students come disproportionately from our nation’s most vulnerable communities, and compassion compels Christ-followers to be transformational agents.

How then should believers and churches engage within the context of nonreligious public school systems? By viewing those systems not as enemies, but as allies for equipping kids to live the lives to which God has called them.

Beyond that, churches should adopt particular schools within their communities. Imagine if every congregation committed to pray regularly for at least one local elementary, middle, or high school. Now imagine if individual congregants became answers to those prayers by volunteering within the schools as hallway monitors, classroom assistants, tutors, event organizers, PTA delegates, or coaches. Even better, imagine if the students themselves were empowered to be salt and light on the campuses; and if God-fearing staff members – whether teachers, aids, principals, or agency administrators – recognized their profession as a calling.

As a community outreach strategy, the best part about adopting schools is that it is doable.

New York City, which boasts the nation’s largest public school system, spreads its students among 1,200 public schools. Who would adopt these schools? Sociologist Tony Carnes of the International Research Institute on Values Changes has identified 7,100 active churches within the five boroughs. That’s more than a 6:1 ratio of churches to schools. Add in the 1,000 private and/or parochial schools, and there are still more than three churches for every school.

The math is similar on a nationwide scale. According to The Barna Group, there are more than 300,000 Protestant and 20,000 Catholic congregations throughout the U.S. The nation’s 57.2 million nursery through high school students are enrolled in 94,000 public schools and 28,400 private schools.

What might happen if the body of Christ within those 300,000+ churches actually functioned as such, and lived out the incarnation of Christ within the walls of our 94,000 public schools? Kids might actually be loved unconditionally, families served selflessly, and schools transformed in ways we all long to see.

Some would advocate that we wage a quixotic battle to reinstate what I consider to be a meaningless nondenominational thirty-second prayer in schools. Why not, instead, resolve collectively to actually pray, repent of neglecting to labor where the fields are white unto harvest, and commit to loving our schools through adoption?

It’s time we reached a “tipping point” to reach our schools!

Jeremy Del Rio is the Co-Founder & Executive Director at 20/20 Vision for Schools.


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